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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Snowfall in Galveston

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

A heavy snowfall on Valentine's Day would not be all that unusual on the high plains. But in Galveston?

No one's alive to swear to it any more. We have only the musty record books and old newspapers to attest to the fact that on Feb. 14, 1895 it snowed 15.2 inches in Galveston, a city where even a temperature in the 40s is unusual.

Forty-five miles to the north, Houston got even more snow -- a staggering 22 inches. And in Beaumont, 28 inches fell.

"The people, or many of them, of Houston are shoveling snow to-day," the Galveston News reported on February 17. "They are moving it from the sidewalks, crossings, awnings and housetops. The sun is helping, and the two forces are getting it out of sight very rapidly."

Even though folks were still enjoying a little impromptu sleighing, vehicle traffic (read horse-drawn vehicle traffic) had turned the snow in the principal streets of the Bayou City into an icy slush. The sun was out and the snow was melting fast.

People were still amazed at how much snow had fallen so near the Gulf of Mexico.

"No man, nor woman, nor page of history has been found that recalls anything to compare with this in the past, in this part of the country," the News declared.

Snow being white and as clean as rain water, folks seemed to think it was a good thing for Houston and Galveston.

"There seems to be no doubt of the sanitary benefit from the cold spell and the permeating and purifying touch of the snow, but the harmful effects upon vegetation for the present are conceded," the newspaper said. In other words, below-freezing temperatures had played havoc with the semi-tropical greenery, especially on the island.

The cold spell hurt more than the vegetation.

"Its effect on cattle is said by stockmen to have been very disastrous," the newspaper continued. "From some members of the Southeast Texas livestock association an estimate has been obtained which places the loss above 25 percent."

One rancher blamed the livestock deaths on barbed wire, which in 1895 had only been around Texas for slightly longer than a decade.

"Cattle will never move against the wind, rain, sleet or snow," he said, "but drift with it as soon as it starts. They used to turn their backs to the northers and gradually drift into the bottoms, where they would get protection by the trees and some kind of green food that would keep life in them till the severity of the cold passed. Now it is different. They are driven by the cold against some wire fence and there they stop and freeze and starve to death."

The people in the island city, then one of the two biggest in Texas, must have thought another ice age had begun. Then again, only nine years before, it also had snowed. That was the time Galveston Bay actually froze over.

During the snowfall of 1895, Galveston was inaccessible by train for several days as the temperature hovered around 24 degrees. Many ships were frozen in their docks and bales of cotton awaiting loading were covered in snow. Hack drivers got $20 a ride to take sightseers around town. To make transportation easier, some enterprising locals mounted their buggies and wagons on runners.

Needless to say, sightseeing was about the only form of commerce going on with the city in the deep freeze. Most businesses shut down, and all the schools.

"The land of the oleander awoke yesterday morning [Feb. 15] to find itself under snow to the depth of about four inches on a level and with snow still falling," the Austin Statesman told its readers. "In places the drifts were over two feet deep and the oldest inhabitant was unable to recall such a snowfall in this part of Texas."

To assess how incredible this snowfall was for Galveston, it was nearly another century before it happened again. When snow was officially recorded at the island's weather bureau in 1989 and again in 1990, however, each instance was only a dusting.

The 1895 snowfall still stands as Galveston's heaviest. The weather system that turned Galveston white was so powerful it even covered Brownsville with six inches of snow. Not for another 109 years did another powerful freak snowstorm hit the Texas coast. That happened on Christmas Eve 2004 when snow fell from Beaumont to Brownsville, with Victoria getting 13 inches.




© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" January 18, 2017

More Columns | Texas Gulf Coast | Old News





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